Penning my morning meditation—on the Anniversary of my Oblation—a chill Autumn wind whistles outside my window, while the teakettle on the stove offers competition to the Fall gale…a fitting juxtaposition for the day! In Zen Buddhism the imagery of “wind in the pines” is a metaphor for a steaming teakettle (often expressed in haiku poetry), setting the mood for contemplation of life’s contradictions and paradoxes. The metaphor of wind in the pines and a whistling teakettle also conjures up feelings of warmth that assuage the cold.
In may ways the metaphor captures my experience of the 2018 Oblate Retreat—leaving for a few days, a world that at times seems to have “gone awry,” and a retreat of warm hospitality, lively conversation, prayer, companionship with Sister and Brother Oblates and Professed community members. It is also an awe-inspiring metaphor for today—the anniversary of my Oblation—a “coming in from the cold”. After all, Benedict exhorts his communities, “All…who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35).”
I made Promises to affiliate with the monastic community of Mount Saviour (to journey with the monastery’s vowed and lay members), by coincidence, on the Feast of St. Luke, October 18th. For Lectio Divinatoday, I happened across the words of Luke, “If any one would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”—from chill winds, to seeking the consolations (and yes, the desolations) of following Him! The Oblation I made several years ago was a promise to travel the two-millennia-old Regula Benedicti(RB).….this morning, it seems like the kettle, out of the silence of my kitchen, audibly calls, “seek God” (RB 58).
As we know, the word “oblate” literally means “offering.” The very first oblates of St. Benedict are recorded as Placid and Maurus, who received their education under St. Benedict at Subiaco and later followed him to Montecassino. They became devout and exemplary vowed monks. In today’s world, however, secular Oblates follow Sts. Benedict and Scholastica under different circumstances than did Placid and Maurus. And, it is of quaint passing interest that, for the moment, Oblates, as formal members of a lay institute in the Church,outnumber professed monastics.
Reflecting on the essay by Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, during the Oblate Retreat, I came to better understand that I am entering into a new world. One in many ways, still undefined—one full of mystery and possibility….brimming with hope and with questions. It is a sojourn where the “membrane” separating the “carriers” of Benedictine charisms (the professed monks) and the “seekers” of those charisms (lay Benedictines) seems to be growing thin and porous. We seem to be heralding a “Mutual Grace” with each other, and hopefully there is humble reciprocity between carriers and seekers. Her argument seems to be that there is an evolution of a “sprouting empathy” between carriers and seekers, rather than a pyramidal ideal of the gifts of Benedictine spirituality. To be sure, each have different “centers of gravity,” but both share overlapping, supportive, and enriching unities.
I have a confession to make. I was a bit startled that some retreatants thought Sr. Joan’s brief focus on human rights—and especially gender justice—seemed out of place at the retreat. The surprise came in part because as long ago as 1986, the Vatican published an Instruction on the special option for redressing injustices, as a source of great hope for all the church. In fact, St.John Paul II (at the time Pope) commended this preferential option as not only timely, but useful and necessary, and one that should constitute a new vision of the Church for all(religious communities were not immune). In the ensuing three decades since 1986, the theology and spirituality has grown even stronger.
This morning, it does not escape me that both the outside wind is blowing, and the inside teakettle is still whistling. I turn back to my meditation, and listen to what they might be offering me: Oblature, just like monasticism itself, is rooted in warm hospitality in a world, described by Pope Francis, as overtaken by “a society tied only to some, while so many others only ‘eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table’.”
During times at Mount Saviour, I recalled an Apache (American Indian) blessing, offered to the “Transcendent Other,” “Tsiga Tsigo”—“You give, I give.” Simple, yet simultaneously profound in its multiple dimensions.
Like monastic women and men before us, on this anniversary of my Oblature, I seek to nurture life, paralleling Luke’s words to “follow Him.” The “how to follow,” and the “where to go” seem oddly irrelevant; listening into the silence broken only by whirling wind and whistling kettle, I trust that the Spirit will guide me, despite my willfulness. But, the “when” is not a point of question, nor immaterial or mysterious…it is in the “now-ness” of always becoming; of always embracing each moments’ invitation to “begin anew.” Reaffirming my Oblature at the 2018 Retreat was an explicit summons to yet one more “new beginning.”
The current description of Oblates of St. Benedict’s Montecassino Abbey (in Italy) claims that ourlife is at least in part, “to serve others, to teach others, to be faithful examples of spirituality and charity, and to adhere to a life…of prayer, obedience, and work.”[i]
My anniversary, inadvertently cotemporaneous with the Feast Day of St. Luke, sings Mary’s Canticle, as recorded by the Lucan community, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
My Oblature anniversary today—God willing—will be one of prayer, work, justice-seeking, and reading that make up the gifts of the monastic day. Doing the will of God the Creator invites us into the human family (“whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” Matthew 12:50). “No-one should pursue what seems better for himself but what seems better for the other instead” (RB 72.7).This line from the Rule seems so tightly bound to Sr. Joan’s contention in the essay we read on retreat.
On my way out the door and into the morning, I’ll carry a pinch of corn pollen, gathered on the Navajo Nation, and, facing east, spread it into the Autumn wind, and pray the Navajo Blessing Way. What strikes me is the distinct similarity between it and the Breast Plate (Lorica) of St. Patrick.
I am always amazed at the many ways that God speaks to Her/His people through their cultural context. I’ll importune the Navajo prayer, on the anniversary of my Oblation, “In beauty I walk / With beauty before me I walk / With beauty behind me I walk / With beauty above me I walk / With beauty around me I walk….” paralleling St. Patrick’s Lorica, “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit….”
….And, finding Christ in the ways He elects to reveal Himself, I sense his gift of presence today in the Fall wind, and in the steaming teapot that begins my Anniversary Day. I sense deep gratitude to the members of the full community of Mount Saviour for the invitation to journey with them.
Bro. Nicholas, Ob OSB, October 18, 2018